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California bishops exploring options to repeal doctor-prescribed suicide law
October 20th, 2015
By Valerie Schmalz

California bishops are supporting “the right and duty” of citizens who have started a signature gathering campaign to repeal the physician-assisted suicide act signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown earlier this month.

The U.S. bishops are likely to take up the issue at their November meeting in Baltimore, said Richard Doerflinger, associate director, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities. With Brown’s signature Oct. 5, all three Pacific Coast states have legalized physician assisted suicide. Only two other states have physician assisted suicide: Vermont and Montana.

The California bishops issued a supplementary statement Oct. 12 that said they were looking at all the options available, including the referendum and legal action. The bishops earlier issued a statement condemning the law Oct. 5, the day that Brown signed the End of Life Option Act.

A group called Seniors Against Suicide filed papers with the state attorney general’s office Oct. 6 to seek a referendum to overturn the measure on the November 2016 ballot. The group would have 90 days, or until Jan. 3, to collect the signatures of about 400,000 registered voters. If the group is successful, the ballot proposition will “allow the people of California in November 2016 to do what Gov. Brown should have done – veto this dangerous legislation,” said Doerflinger.

“Concerned opponents of physician-assisted suicide have already started the process for a referendum. We affirm and support them in that decision,” said the bishops of the archdioceses of San Francisco and Los Angeles and dioceses of Fresno, Monterey, Oakland, Orange, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Jose, Santa Rosa and Stockton Oct. 12.

“What next?” is a big question for opponents of physician-assisted suicide.

“We are reviewing the options,” said Tim Rosales of Californians Against Assisted Suicide, a statewide coalition of organizations opposed to physician assisted suicide, which issued a statement saying, “This is a dark day for California and for the Brown legacy.”

Diane Coleman of Not Dead Yet, an organization of people with disabilities, said outreach to people contemplating or threatened by physician assisted suicide is critical with passage of “this terrible law.”

“We need to work to ensure that there is a way for abuses to be reported by patients who feel pressured or by loved ones who see pressures being applied on someone,” said Coleman.

“I am advocating the option of litigation under laws prohibiting discrimination based on disability,” said Coleman. “The truly serious discrimination inherent in assisted suicide laws is that non-disabled people get suicide prevention while disabled people – terminal or nonterminal – get suicide assistance. “

Millions of Californians do not have access to palliative care and effective pain relief under Medi-Cal, the California Catholic Conference said. “As citizens of this state, we all have the right and, we would emphasize, the duty to ensure that the voice of the people, especially those most vulnerable, is heard,” the California bishops said.

The exact path forward has not been formalized yet, said Steve Pehanich, director of communication and advocacy for the California Catholic Conference. The bishops “want to look at all options available,” he said.

“Justice and promotion of the common good demand that every conceivable legal remedy to the unwise legalization of assisted suicide be given due consideration. We are in that process of such consideration now,” the California bishops said in their Oct. 12 statement.

The law allows a physician to prescribe a lethal dose of narcotics to someone who is diagnosed with a terminal illness with six months to live. Suicide itself is legal in all 50 states.

Any referendum effort in California would require large amounts of cash to hold its own against the deep pockets of physician assisted suicide advocate Compassion & Choices. However, despite decades of advocacy by Compassion & Choices, the laws have only been implemented in four states. In Montana, the courts ruled there was not a legal obstacle to physician assisted suicide.

In July, the California bill appeared to have stalled for the year in an Assembly committee. The “End of Life Option Act” was introduced in an August special session called to address a $1 billion gap in Medi-Cal funding and other health financing issues – issues which were not fixed. It was the eighth such bill introduced in California since 1994, according to the Patients Rights Council, a national organization based in Ohio.

“Even in California, proponents of assisted suicide failed in the regular legislature and had to hijack a “special session” on health care budgets and fabricate a deliberately biased new committee to pass the bill,” Doerflinger said.

Like Oregon’s “Death With Dignity” law, there are no effective safeguards for those accessing a prescription for lethal dose of medicine from their doctor in California, said Rita Marker of the Patients Rights Council. Those reporting the dispensing of the prescription are the ones who are prescribing. There are no penalties for noncompliance and the death certificate does not list assisted suicide but the underlying illness as cause of death, Marker said.

California’s law has even fewer safeguards than Oregon’s because after the required two week waiting period following a terminal diagnosis, the patient can write or phone to get the assisted suicide prescription and the dose can be sent via mail, FedEx or UPS. In addition, in California only one of the two witnesses of the patient’s decision has to be disinterested – that is not an heir or relative – which means the other person can be someone who has a financial interest in the patient’s death, she said.

From October 22, 2015 issue of Catholic San Francisco.


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